Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable
The thing that struck me most about Arrival is its use of sound. The film is all about communication and this film draws your attention immediately to how sound shapes our understanding of events. In many early scenes director Denis Villeneuve makes you notice the ways we hear and don't hear the things all around you. I thought it was a very clever way to make the audience think about how we communicate.
Arrival is the story Louise Banks (Amy Adams). The movie begins with a montage of her life with her young daughter who gets sick and dies as a teenager. The movie then moves to a day in her life as a linguists professor on the day that twelve alien spaceships have entered our world and hover in twelve random locations all over the world. Col. Weber (Forrest Whitaker) comes to her and seeks her help in communicating with the aliens. While she heads the communications team, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a nerdy scientist, is chosen to head the analysis team. Together they attempt to understand a truly non-human race. And it is a race against time because other nations are attempting similar communications and the slightest misunderstanding could lead to conflict.
The design of the aliens is unique, which adds to the movies distinctive flavor. Quite often the aliens are incredibly anthropomorphized, but Arrival does not take that easy way out. The aliens look so completely inhuman that there is a constant sense of unease. They look monstrous so you are constantly waiting for the sinister turn to come. But you constantly ask yourself if this is because you are observant or because you are distrustful.
The use of the alien language was the most fascinating part of the movie. Their language is non-linear which implies that their minds are do not think in a linear way. Past/present/future are all mixed together in their thoughts. And as Louise enters deeper into their language, she also takes on this way of thinking. Her mind constantly is taken to other times, particularly to times with her daughter.
What Arrival does incredibly well is that it makes this potentially world-ending crisis feel like a deep personal character study. The amazing sci-fi story is as important to the epic interior journey of Louise. Both the giant-scale and the personal-scale are connected intimately. Villeneuve constantly holds the film in the indirect-subjective point of view, rarely taking you out of Louise's perspective. The director uses the evolution of Louise's mindset as way to take you on a wonderfully strange journey.
Adams is fantastic in the main role. The overwhelming weight that is placed on her character is evident in every choice. The intensity she gives only increases as the pressure mounts and she begins to get lost in her own thoughts. Adams gives an emotionally powerful performance that never feels too over-the-top. The other performances are fine, but nothing at Adams level. Renner is fine and even Whitaker doesn't go too far out. But since Adams is really the center and heart of the whole movie, so as long as the other performances are not terrible, it does not detract.
The strangest thing about the film is that it seems to take some weirdly unnecessary political pot shots. Early in the film Louise is on the phone with her mother, who is watching the news about the alien arrival. Louise says something like, "Don't listen to that network." It seems like a dig at Fox News, but it is too subtle to be that noticeable. But later, a character named Captain Marks (Mark O'Brien) begins to develop a violently radical attitude towards the aliens. This is stoked by him watching an internet commentator who is clearly modeled after either Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones. And rather than taking the fear that people feel as semi-understandable reaction, it is presented as the clearly wrong choice influenced by right-wing fanatics. Captain Marks' movement to violent fear could have been handled with competent care, but the movie decided to take a sloppy, simplistic way that could insult a number of people in the audience.
This is a shame, because some of the more philosophical and ethically ponderous parts of the film are quite enjoyable. The movie wants to say something about human nature and how we can understand each other. And even if you don't completely share the filmmakers' point of view on all that they are trying to say, there is enough intellectual content to keep you turning over the ideas in your mind.
And I am not the smartest guy in the world, but I can usually see a movie plot twist coming a mile away. However there were some nice story surprises that actually made me audibly say "Ohhh!" in the theater. And afterwards, the movie generated a lot of discussion.
That is the sign of a good movie.
4 out of 5 stars.